Though the term “plasticity” is more often employed when describing sculpture, it can sometimes infiltrate the visual arts to a persistent effect. Giotto’s monochrome virtues and vices, painted on the walls of Capella degli Scrovegni, Padua, demonstrate what can be defined as “quasi-sculptural” plasticity: it brings the figures to life via subtle yet expressive movement and illusionistic trompe l’oeil techniques.
Giotto’s plasticity transcends the physical, percolating into the world of ideas — or, perhaps, the other way around, ensues from ideas to artwork. Either way, the proto-renaissance painter was an innovator in that his figures indicate a flexibility of imagination, never before seen in the generally rigid and static Gothic idiom. To a modern observer his compositions may seem hardly animated but, in the context of early 14th century, his murals demonstrate a genuine artistic leap — what made Masaccio and Michelangelo possible centuries later.
Movement in of Giotto’s characters is usually confined to the hands and the head, traditionally the hardest to paint and the richest in expression parts of the body. Clean, precise, yet subtle gestures evince an economy motion and conjure up an unmistakable corporeal presence. Facial expressions — a faint smile here, a smirk there — involve the viewers, appealing to real, immediate emotions. And yet, at the same time, the virtues and vices function as symbols of more abstract emotive content of moral religious value, as the titles denote.
Giotto builds up towards religious meanings by constructing a serene and calm atmosphere within a contained and contemplative framework. The characters, while human, interact and blend with their context (narrated by auxiliary actors and accessories that surround the protagonists: angels, wings, clothing, other objects) eventually becoming something grander than ordinary people: they transform into allegories.
Emphasis on the human experience (or human condition) — eventually bound to define Renaissance, and humanism — is only nascent in Giotto’s Virtues and Vices. It’s as if they unwillingly concede to material nature — a concession that will be transcended into a victory by the great painters of High Renaissance.
The frank physicality of Hope is striking considering the spiritual connotation of the image, though there is a compositional balance between the two. While the thighs and the legs are so clearly defined as to appear almost seductively naked, the piously outstretched arms and the wings suggest higher, heavenly realms. Emotion, conveyed by a confident gaze, is simple, unaffected, and pure.
Still, compared to the full-blown, complex drama of Michelangelo, two centuries later, this is an almost parochial, small scale interpretation. Giotto’s world presents a remote, metaphysical vision, very far from the intense and overflowing vitality of later masters: it’s only a start.
*this article has been edited at a later date